Monday, March 5, 2012

Gator Freethought a Bust?

My ideas haven't been going over well at Gator Freethought. In the past I have messaged the group with ideas for getting involved with the community, such as the Volunteers Beyond Belief program or joining the International Foundation Beyond Belief Team for the LLS Light the Night Walk. These ideas were met with silence. And that's ok, not everyone is interested in doing community service and the existing group doesn't really seem to be set up to support that kind of thing. It's just not what this group is interested in. Once I'm done with grad school I can find a more service-oriented group, or start one myself. I would love to be a part of a secular humanist group that hosted both formal and informal talks and discussions at local bars and restaurants, as well as regular community service events and social gatherings.

But for now, Gator Freethought is what I've got to work with. The group describes itself on Facebook as:
"...a student organization at UF that provides freethinkers of any religious background the opportunity to meet and discuss religion and nonreligion alike."
"We meet every 2-3 weeks during the school year to hear a guest speaker on some topic of interest, after which we have a lively and interesting discussion, and typically go out for food and drinks afterwards. In addition, our members usually offer to host get-togethers every few weeks for the group."
So I don't think my expectations of social interaction were unfounded. After attending two meetings without learning anyone's name, I posted on their Facebook page about the lack of any socializing opportunities. I was told that the group had, in fact, held an informal introduction at the last meeting which I must have just missed somehow even though I was present the entire time. When I expressed interest in less formal discussions, I was told:
"You're thinking about a completely different kind of group than what Gator FreeThought currently is. Therefore I encourage you to take the lead and sponsor/organize new events."
So it looks like if I want to interact socially with this new group I've just joined, I have to organize it myself. A bit challenging, given that I don't know anyone's name or what they're interested in, but perhaps do-able in the future. Not the most helpful answer, since it did not indicate how to go about setting up an event. But I've organized student groups before, I have a pretty good idea how to manage it. Most people just joining a student group probably wouldn't have that experience. These guys just don't seem to know how to respond to new people or new ideas.

My biggest complaint by far is that the current discussions aren't really moderated well. Yes, you can raise your hand if you want to say something. But the people sitting in the front can't see your raised hand, and will just launch into whatever they want to say as soon as there is a pause in the conversation. People talk over each other a lot. Whoever says something first, even if they've been talking all night, gets the floor. No one ever says 'Hey, you've had plenty of time to share your thoughts. Let's hear from someone else.' If someone goes off on a tangent, no one interrupts them and says 'I get that Japanese foot-binding is an interesting subject that you know a lot about, but we should stay on track and make sure there's time for everyone to speak about tonight's topic.' If the moderator isn't doing this, should I step in? Like I said, I don't even know their names. That makes it a bit awkward, but this too can be overcome. But I don't think most people, especially new people, would feel comfortable doing so.

When I mentioned this on Facebook, I was basically told it wasn't really a problem because lots of people were speaking at meetings and it was inevitable that certain people would talk more than others. Obviously I think it is a problem. Decent moderation goes a long way, and without it less aggressive voices are never heard. Again, these guys seem pretty set in their ways. I'm definitely getting the impression that if I want to actually enjoy participating in this group, I'm going to have to make the changes I want to see myself. Those responses aren't totally unreasonable, but they do make me feel like I'm not being taken very seriously and they definitely don't make me feel welcome. I feel like I'm being told 'These aren't real problems, and if you don't like our club go start your own.'

I'm gonna try one more meeting to see if my comments actually made a difference, but I'm not all that interested in just having a conversation with one or two guys who dominate the group without even learning their names. And I am not going to have time to do a lot of organizing in the next few months, especially not for a group where I don't feel welcome.

It's a vicious cycle:
New person joins
New person complains about not being able to participate
New person is told things are fine the way they are
New person doesn't feel welcome and doesn't bother participating more
Things stay exactly the same

Guess we'll see what happens at the meeting next week.

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